Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Videodrome - 1983

"Videodrome" - 1983
Dir. by David Cronenberg - 1 hr. 27 min.

Original Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

The number of times that I've actually been freaked out by a movie is pretty low.  I distinctly remember watching "A Clockwork Orange" in high school with a friend late one Saturday night, and having a terror-filled late-night drive back home.  I don't remember anything recently having that kind of effect (I mean, I hated "The Doom Generation," but it didn't freak me out), until watching "Videodrome."  And to think, it had just been sitting there innocently on my DVR for months, pretending there was nothing abnormal about it, and that it was just another movie and not a messed up fever dream.  But "Videodrome" was lying to me about being nothing unusual, lying so hard that there ought to be a law.

Max Renn (James Woods) is a programmer for a UHF station in Toronto, and his network specializes in sleazy programming (the kind other networks won't air).  His techie, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), comes across something called "Videodrome" on a pirate satellite transmission, and the images of straightforward torture immediately spellbinds Max.  Max sets about finding out who is responsible for it, so that he can air it, but this proves to be a difficult nut to crack.  He and his girlfriend, Nicki (Deborah Harry) watch the tape one night, and she's so into it that she bolts her job to try and get on the show (she's kinky that way).  At the same time, Max starts going a little bit crazy, experiencing hallucinations of growing intensity.  Max finds a thread about who's responsible for "Videodrome," but this just raises bigger questions.

"Videodrome" comes off like a surreal paranoid horror film.  Although the surreal elements grow throughout the run-time, it's not like the movie starts off normal and then ends up really weird.  It's pretty weird to begin with; Max is kind of an unrepentant pornographer of sorts (that's slightly overstating things, but he's not procuring Christian programming by any means).  And we're almost immediately introduced to the kind of flesh-centric programming that he's looking for.  Much of the sexual content is bundled up with pain of some kind, and I'll admit that it was unnerving to see Blondie asking Max to stab her with a Swiss Army Knife, and even more so to watch her burn one of her breasts with a lit cigarette.  Max participates, although there's a little unease about it, it's not clear that he's entirely comfortable with pushing these boundaries in his real life.  And this was even before Max's viewpoint becomes unreliable; when Nicki sees the torture tape, she's like a moth drawn to a flame.  That's fairly hardcore content, stuff that's designed to push emotional buttons: there aren't many films where the chief female character is overtly, sexually explicitly masochistic.  At least I don't remember Meg Ryan doing any roles like that.

But once the conspiracy plot starts to take hold, things really go off the rails.  Max's hallucinations grow, but are real at the same time.  For me, the "holy shit" moment was when Max develops storage capabilities in his sternum, and leaves a gun in there (to be retrieved later, and used, which is part of the epic mindfuck of "Videodrome").  That's hardly the craziest thing here, but it's the point where I sat there with my mouth open, wondering what the heck I was watching.  There were at least a couple of other moments that had the same effect, including the ending, but the whole stew of horror, sexuality, machinery, and violence seems chemically engineered to work it's way into every viewer's head and mess with whatever you've got going on up there.

One interesting element of the film came early on, during a panel interview that included Max, a provocative woman dressed in red, and a man named Prof. Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), who appears only on a TV screen, on a TV on the set of the talk show.  An argument is advanced about technology overwhelming people into a state of over-stimulation, which I thought was kind of comical, considering that this movie was made thirty years ago.  But it makes a larger point, that there is always an element of society that feels like they're losing control over their own lives to "progress," but the fact is that argument pops up continuously over the years.  Maybe the argument is right, but the amount of information and technology that we're all expected to juggle hasn't ever regressed, so it's a meaningless point.  The movie itself is summed up here; if the technology exists, someone will use it.  Doesn't matter if the result is good, bad, or indifferent, if it can be done, someone will do it.  Although "Videodrome" appears to be condemning the advances of machine's ability to influence man, it might better be viewed as a warning to keep up or get trampled.

There are a lot of ways "Videodrome" could have gone wrong, but it's a focused, pointed film that is more interested in raising questions than answering them.  The acting is universally good, with everyone feeling a little bit off (and James Woods' usual bluster comes off more like trying to cope with what's going on around him this time, which works very well).  This is just unusual, a very unusual movie, one that actually tries to make a point, but by the end, it's not clear who's side the narrative has been supporting.  But a point has been made, nonetheless.

4 / 5 - TV (HD)

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